By Varsha Varghese


This paper will attempt to explore the idea that an individual’s multiple identities are often made irrelevant by the state or special interest groups to bring out a singular identity. A singular identity that aids in creating a national identity or a distinct group identity. Amartya Sen’s conception of Identity would serve as the theoretical framework for this paper. To support my claim I would primarily be looking at three historical cases that detail the use of language and religion to create the distinct identity I speak of. This includes the use of Irish and French language to create national identities and the use of cassette tape sermons in the Cairo landscape for the Islamic Revival Movement. To open doors to the thought of the possible imposition of an identity by an outsider party, Said’s ‘Orientalism’ will be briefly studied towards the end of this paper.

There exists plurality of identities and individuals employ choice to determine the varying relevance of their particular identities. Sen points out that however the existence of this choice is not without constraints.[1] I wish to unravel the idea of such constraints laid by a state or an interest group on a body of people. A possible application of constraint could be in the form of imposition of a language or simply the promotion of a language in a given space. Traversing the latter first, we move to the Irish landscape. In a matter of a decade, the three thousand year language previously spoken only be peasants in the Western province was revived by the Gaelic league. Soon every newspaper of the region had at least one edition in the language. It was taught in primary and secondary schools and even in universities it was placed against other modern European languages in importance. The language permeated into the cityscape of Dublin with street names being additionally written in Irish. It even went beyond mere promotion of the language with instances like “The League organizes festivals, concerts, debates and social gatherings at which the speaker of Beurla (that is, English) feels like a fish out of the water, lost in the midst of a crowd chatting away in a harsh guttural tongue” being recorded.[2] This then becomes an example for the demonstration of what Sen calls ‘conformist behavior’.[3] Social pressure is effectively used by the Gaelic League to make individuals conform to the language they now perceive to be fashionable. Philologists have identified the Irish language to be eastern in origin and related to the ancient language of the Phoenicians who are argued to be the discoverers of communication and navigation. Language was thus used as a tool by an ancient nation to renew in a modern form the glories of the past and to invoke nationalist sentiments in the citizens.

Across the Celtic sea and the English channel is a geographical space where the state resorted to harsher tactics for the creation of a distinct national identity. There was a need to persuade the people that the fatherland extended beyond their immediate environment to something intangible called France. French language was used to create a distinct French identity. It becomes even more interesting against the fact that in 1863, a fifth of the population did not know the language, a proportion that becomes larger if we include those whose notion of the language was vague. Language education in a free and compulsory education framework then becomes the instrument for coercion to ensure a fully French speaking population within a few decades. The forms used by school inspectors in the 1870’s had the instruction “Need to teach exclusively in French. Regulations to be reviewed in pays where Basque, Breton, Flemish and German patois etc. are spoken”.[4] There were other instances like the prohibition and fines collected when children were caught using these indigenous languages in schools. The imposition of a common language in this manner wipes out the numerous languages previously coexisting in the space and subsequently obliterates the identities attached by the speakers of these languages. One is then left with a homogenous community speaking a single language occupying a common geographic space, thus making it easier to implant a love for the fatherland and establishing a strong national identity.

Religion becomes another tool for creating a singular overarching identity that covers many individuals. Anderson in his paper “Imagined Communities” borrows from history to detail how religion created imagined communities bringing together groups which were otherwise scattered with no common ground.[5] He recognizes that the importance of some religion based communities, say Christianity, have since then declined with the breakdown of sacred language, Latin as a spoken language. This idea however makes one wonder about another sacred language, Arabic which continues to be spoken widely. I would like to argue, that religious communities do continue to thrive, often blurring the multiple identities that individuals have to bring forth only the identity that makes them part of a distinct religious community.

Of the many religious movements in history that have strived to create distinct religious community, I will delve into a particular instance of the Islamic Revival Movement. This story takes us to the streets of Cairo. Hirschkind in his book “The Ethical Soundscape” weaves a tale of the many personal narratives that is touched by cassette tape sermons that permeates the city’s soundscape. He reasons how this form of Islamic media has had a profound effect on the configuration of religion, politics and community in the Middle East. I chose to extend and explain the thread of how it has helped in creating a strong community identity grounded in religion. For one, Cairo is a large city with existence of other minorities including Coptic Christians and Jews. In such a setting, an all pervasive media of this sort in a way strips the city of its minority identities to leave bare a heavily Islamic identity. The sermons also have political undertones in a way that exposes the overlapping and merging of national and religion identities in the Middle East. They often critique the lack of democracy and accountability of the ruling elites of the Muslim world. This is best showcased by the question, “Is the Islamic Revival Movement compatible with democracy?” [6]

Going back to the Irish landscape, I briefly untwine the role of religion in creating a distinct national identity. Joyce traces back the history of the Irish church to the first century of Christianity. It is with the English invasion that you see the strands of religion coming together to create a national identity. Joyce details that “The ancient enemies made a common cause against the aggression of the English. It was the Protestants who became more Irish than the Irish themselves, they were inciting the Irish Catholics to oppose the Calvinist and Lutheran fanatics from across the waters.”[7] Three interesting points can be gathered from this extract. One is by saying that the Protestants became more Irish than the Irish themselves, it strongly suggests a past where the Irish identity was solidly tied with that of Catholicism. This makes a case for my argument that religion is often a cohesive for creating a distinct identity. There is also a hint of the strong collective national identity that gets created in the light of oppression from outsiders. It must also be noted that identity is a dynamic concept. Sen brings out this dynamic shifts and changes in identity in a different context when he speaks of the Rwandan genocide settings where individuals who previously saw themselves as simply Rwandans where now forced to acknowledge and act on their identities as Tutsis and Hutus. In the Irish case above we see a situation in the opposite end of the same spectrum, a situation where the previously closely held religious differences become irrelevant or at least avoidable and a singular Irish identity formed primarily on a common language comes forth in the face of the invader.

Finally I would like to bring in the idea of an outsider party lending an identity of sort on a community. This might even be when we perceive ourselves through certain identities. Sen highlights this idea with the statement “However even when we are clear about how we want to see ourselves we may have difficulty in persuading others to see us in just that way.”[8] Said in ‘Orientalism’ uses the speeches by Arthur Balfour and Lord Cromer to surface the views of the West towards the East.[9] Cromer speaks of Orientals as what he had ruled or had to deal with in India and Egypt. The sweeping term ‘Oriental’ gives to very diverse communities a singular blanket identity that veils the plurality of identities that they possess. Though the implications of such actions are beyond the scope of this paper, I would like to leave behind a thought. Imposition of singular identity is then not limited to the state or an interest group for its own people. It might even be employed by an outsider party for various reasons, in this case to establish the inferiority of the Egyptians to justify British rule. By attributing words like ‘savage’, ‘gullible’, ‘lethargic and suspicious’ to the Orientals, the English community and the European community at large gives them an almost subhuman status and a distorted identity that is far from what the community perceives itself to be.


To conclude, I would like to state that historical evidence points to a macro narrative of individual plural identities being suppressed for the creation of a singular identity. The restriction on choice inflicted on the individuals in choosing their identity could be either for the purpose of invoking nationalist feelings or even simply to be a member of a specific community. A vein for further exploration could be to study the other sorts of group identities that are created when the multiple identities are made irrelevant. It would also be interesting to look into the degree of coercion involved while creating this singular identity, or is that such an endeavor is possible only with the willingness of the individuals involved.

[1] Amartya Sen, ‘Chapter 1’, Identity and Violence:The Illusion of Destiny (W.W. Norton & Company, 2006)

[2] James Joyce, ‘Ireland: Island of Saints and Sages’, Occasional, Critical and Political Writings, (Oxford University Press, 2008)

[3] Sen (p. 9)

[4] Eugen Weber, ‘Chapter seventeen’, Peasants into Frenchmen : The modernization of Rural France, 1870-1914, (Stanford University Press, 1976)

[5] Benedict Anderson, ‘Introduction’, Imagined Communities : Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, (Verso 1983)

[6] Charles Hirschkind, ‘Introduction’, Ethical Soundscape, (Columbia University Press)

[7]  Joyce (Ireland: Island of Saints and Sages)

[8] Sen (p 5)

Posted by The Indian Economist | For the Curious Mind